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31 May 2023

Deborah Levy’s double lives

At the heart of her new novel August Blue is the question: where does one self begin and another end?

By Alex Clark

The subtle orchestration of Deborah Levy’s writing does not yield easily to summary, not because of plot complexity; the premise of each of her novels can be compressed into a sentence. A mysterious woman disrupts holidaying couples in Swimming Home, itself an echo of a previous novel, The Unloved; a woman accompanies her sick mother abroad in search of a cure in Hot Milk; a man is run over in The Man Who Saw Everything. Levy’s early work as a dramatist informs her understanding of the power of the strong, simple set-up. Her development as a novelist – in tandem with her three-volume memoir project – lies in her attentiveness to the power of disrupting that simplicity. As with Elena Ferrante, her writing pulses with the repeated inquiry: what is a self? Where is the boundary between you and me?

In August Blue, she relates the story of a woman in crisis sent further spinning when she finds herself apparently pursued by a stranger, and prompted thereafter to consider her origins, and the absence of her birth mother. But much of the novel’s power resides in tone: a mixture of high flippancy, hypersensitivity and profound pain in which the reader, like the protagonist, is continually complicit. The contortions we undertake to avoid revealing ourselves are the novel’s true mystery, and its lattice of symbols and talismans is the door we must unlock to release it.

There is a submerged joke even in the narrative’s inciting incident: when celebrated concert pianist Elsa M Anderson breaks down during a performance, she is playing Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No 2, a work that its composer struggled to complete. Its afterlife includes the soundtrack for David Lean’s Brief Encounter and adaptation for Eric Carmen’s 1975 soft-rock hit “All By Myself”. Elsa’s year-long progress, by turns faltering and propulsive, through a handful of European cities is punctuated by numerous brief encounters, and she is both buffeted by those interactions and left markedly alone.

Elsa has been a child prodigy, her talent nurtured and driven by her mentor Arthur Goldstein, who removed her from her Suffolk foster parents when she was six and installed her in his Richmond upon Thames mansion. Now elderly and increasingly frail, he has removed himself to the dusty heat of Sardinia, whence he sends her beseeching and occasionally imperious exhortations to mend her broken career. Elsa is 34 and, as she notes, without lover or children or much prospect thereof, her connections to her stand-in family long disappeared, her biological parents unknown to her.

And yet. Elsa’s concert collapse has not been a matter of overt emotional instability, or of stage fright. Rather, it occurs because she is suddenly overtaken by a completely different impetus: “I had lost where we were under the baton of M. The orchestra went one way, the piano went another way. My fingers refused to bend for Rachmaninoff and I began to play something else. Arthur had taught me at six years old to ‘detach my mind from commonplace things’, but it seemed that commonplace things had walked into my mind that night.” Her deviation from the concerto leads her into playing, for two minutes and 12 seconds, a composition of her own. In the forthright opinion of Julia, the partner of her friend Marie, the conductor should have silenced the orchestra – and his own ego – to allow Elsa’s music to emerge. Elsa herself is unsure.

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Julia’s attitude is one of claiming space and rejecting others’ supremacy, particularly that of self-important men, and elsewhere characters pop up to voice disapproval of Arthur’s control over Elsa’s life. But Elsa is drawn towards resisting the obvious, and it is there that her relationship towards a woman she glimpses at the very start of the story makes itself felt. Watching this interloper buying a pair of mechanical horses at a market in Athens, Elsa feels that the toy figures by rights belong to her. She steals the woman’s hat, vowing only to return it when the horses are surrendered. The woman reappears in unlikely places, at times exuding fear and caution, at others daring Elsa to follow.

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She is not quite a double in the gothic tradition, not a doppelganger from Dostoevsky or Nabokov, but part of another literary preoccupation, a manifestation of another self – of the kind one might find in Patricia Highsmith, John Banville or Iris Murdoch. “All I knew was that I must not physically go out on to the street and greet her,” thinks Elsa, when the woman appears on a cold day in London.

I knew she was there, but I didn’t want to scare her. I felt that with great urgency. She knew I was there too, but she still refused to look in my direction. I wondered if she might be ashamed of me…

I’ve got your hat, I said to her in my head. When you return the horses I will give it back to you.

It’s not a matter of returning the horses, she replied. Just because you want them doesn’t mean you can have them.

We are in the territory of the fairy-tale, and of psychological magic: across the narrative are scattered auguries, hallucinations, everyday objects curiously invested with power. There is a procession of creatures, from the sea urchins that Elsa wrestles from their underwater rocks with a fork on a trip to Poros, to parrots, parakeets, scorpions, cats and lines of ants that march around the rim of her bathtub, whether she’s at home in London or lodging in Paris. There is even a candy snake, its head stuffed into the mouth of a teenage girl, which links with the horse woman’s high-heeled snakeskin boots and various visceral descriptions of food and eating. These range from an old man piercing a potato in the Café de Flore to gooey, sexual millefeuilles and the constant consumption – of eggs, fish, peppers, anything – by Elsa’s friend, Rajesh.

Locations, too, are portrayed as simultaneously discrete and connected. Elsa shuttles between cities, teaching wealthy, unhappy children, her eyes searching out tree trunks growing beneath pavements or flowers blossoming on the Acropolis. As so frequently in Levy’s work, beaches feature as magnetic backdrops, seducing characters from the literal to the littoral.

The intricacy of this patterning might feel heavy-handed and claustrophobic were it not for that subversive, treacherous matter of tone, the way Levy lays out her trinkets and tokens and repeatedly undercuts them with a lightning flash of sincerity and even sentimentality. She is perfectly aware that her readers will know that Elsa’s “double” is a version of herself, that the horses represent a piece of buried knowledge, that when Elsa dyes her hair blue and displays a green jewel in her navel she is attempting a kind of metamorphosis, and that when she plunges into the sea so that she can’t hear what men are saying, she is becoming a sort of reverse mermaid. None of this is functioning at the level of realism, but as much as Levy is writing metaphorically, she is also inviting us to examine the dangers of metaphor.

To write this bewitchingly is also to cast doubt on the power of bewitchment. Always, Levy is interested in charisma and enthralment; here, she is focused on breaking the spell, and on the harrowing efforts that demands. Towards the end of August Blue, Elsa reflects that courage, rather than a lack of it, lies at the root of her problems, for “courage silenced everything else”. It is her rejection of bravery that finally promises freedom.

August Blue
Deborah Levy
Hamish Hamilton, 256pp, £18.99

[See also: Why we need the Women’s Prize for Non-fiction]

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This article appears in the 31 May 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The Rise of Greedflation